A Country of Liars

  • By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong

    July 03, 2005 23:18

    Kim Dae-joong

    In every country there are crimes that uniquely reflect its society. National Intelligence Service director-designate Kim Seung-kyu, in a lecture he gave late in May when he was justice minister, said: "The three representative crimes of our country are perjury, libel and fraud." In simple comparison, not taking into account population ratio, South Korea saw 16 times as many perjury cases in 2003 than Japan, 39 times as many libel cases and 26 times as many instances of fraud. That is extraordinarily high given Japan's population is three times our own.

    The common denominator of the three crimes is lying; in short, we live in a country of liars. The prosecution devotes 70 percent of its work to handling the three crimes, the former justice minister said. And because suspects lie so much, the indictment rate in fraud cases is 19.5 percent, in perjury 29 percent and in libel 43.1 percent. "Internationally, too, there is a perception that South Korea's representative crime is fraud," Kim said, adding that recent major scandals show how rampant lying is in this country.

    The prosecution is not free from responsibility, since there is a sense in which its ingrained attitude in dealing with suspects for libel, fraud and perjury has contributed to making the crimes the scourge they have become.

    Lying is so common in our society because few recognize that it leads to crime. "What's wrong with telling a little lie?" they think. And here the big problem is that men of power, rather than ordinary citizens, indulge in lying on a massive scale, to the point where it is regarded as a necessary means of survival in some circles.

    A recent example that hurt us all is the lies of Kim Dae-yeop, finally punished by a court for fabricating a charge against the opposition presidential candidate in the 2002 elections. That lie determined the fate of a government. When the opposition party demanded an apology, he laughed in their face by sending apples -- phonetically, both apples and apology are "sagwa."

    More staggering lies were told by the president's associates in the KORAIL "Oilgate" scandal. Deft alterations of wording by an influential lawmaker close to the chief executive and sudden failures of memory and brazen denials by others have all turned out to be false. Nonetheless, they managed to slip the clutches of the law, as if to show us that they can. We can well imagine why the ex-justice minister made his complaint.

    Such behavior generally has its roots in the arrogance and egotism of those who feel that what they do is always right and anything that gets in the way is wrong. It also springs from a perception that the best strategy is to reject anything that does not fit in with your beliefs -- for example by thinking that you don't have to abide by laws you have decided are "evil."

    We can glimpse in the way our presidents wield their enormous power a sense that it is all right on occasion for you to distort a situation or slander others short of outright lying if that is what it takes to achieve your aims. Nor can it be denied that our cultural climate has justified the perception that if you manage to get out of a tight spot by lying first, you will be able to overcome the whole matter one way or the other.

    In Western European countries, the life of a politician or bureaucrat comes to an end when their lies are revealed. Mistakes they forgive; lies never. The lies of leaders and men of power are subject to punishment tens and hundreds of times heavier than that given ordinary people, and to call someone a liar is the ultimate insult. In Japan, children are taught from infancy that honesty and frankness are the highest personal values.

    We, too, need nationwide education to foster a public perception that lying is a crime that degrades human nature and causes a plethora of social evils. We must thoroughly punish slander and deception of others. Our leadership and the entire country have much to learn from the mother in Gwangju who early in June sent her son back to police after false testimony got him off an assault charge, with a request that he be taught some honesty.

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